The worship of Bhagavathi is popular and widespread in Kerala and the southern part of Karavali areas traditionally dominated by matri-archial system of families. The cult of Bhagavathi often transcends the spirit worship and overlaps into the field worship of Mother Godess or the Shakti. Thus a fusion of the cults of the Spirits and Godesses can be seen. In Kerala, the Bhagavathi worship is a part of Teyyam (spirit) worship.
The word Bhagavathi has interesting connotations and history. It is said to be the product of Buddhist heritage of southern India. The word Bhagavathi appears as female equivalent (Godess) of the word Bhagavantha, the God. However, the word ‘Bhaga’ basically has dual meanings such as: (1) prosperity and (2) female genitalia. Thus, shades of primitive genital worship notions can be found in the word. Thus the ‘Bhagavathi’ essentially stands for honorable woman, the creator and a symbol of prosperity.
The second meaning of the word, the allusion to genitalia, is remnant of the Tantric origin of the Bhagavathi concept. During the course of evolution, Mahayana Buddhism developed a branch known as Vajrayana. The Vajrayana philosophy revolved around the sexually oriented tantric yoga that emphasized the occult worship of generative (reproductive) organs. In this cult, codes were used to refer to the genitalia. The word ‘vajra’(=diamond scepter) was a code for phallus and ‘padma’(=lotus) for the vulva. The germinal Buddhist mantra ‘Om mani padme hum’ is explained as code for sexual union, where the term, ‘mani’(=jewel) represents the male organ.
The Bhagavathi cult was in vogue during 9th century, since a specific reference to the cult appears in the writings of the Kannada poet Pampa (born.902 AD)
The Kodangallur in Kerala is considered to be one of the oldest Bhagavathi shrines. The area appears to be originally was a Buddhist shrine devoted to the worship of Tara Bhagavathi, a Buddhist Godess. Tara is Buddhist form of Kali .The Bhagavathi cult possibly, initiated as a part of the Tantric Vajrayana practice within the Buddhism. With the downfall of Buddhism in south India and under the dominant matriarchial setting, it was gradually sanctified and absorbed into the mainstream Hindu cult of Shakti and Spirit worship.
In Jainism the mother Godess is worshipped in the form of Padmavathi. With the Padma (=lotus) being a code for feminine sexuality as in texts of Vajrayana Buddhism, it appears that Tantric sexual cults with passage of time evolved in to honorable Mother Godess worship in Hindu as well as Jain philosophies..
The worship of Durga, Bhagavathi and Padmavathi in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain philosophies respectively shows that similar theologic concepts developed in these religions during the historical period of 7th to 10th centuries.
Template for Divinity
The post-Buddhist Bhagavathi is a divine concept. It is not a single identity, with a sequence of martyred women occupying the status of Bhagavathi-hood. Dr.Amrita Someswara has pointed out that it is a multiple identity consisting of many Bhagavathi-s consecrated during different time periods and backgrounds. Thus, the concept of Bhagavathi has perpetuated as a template for attribution of divinity or the spirit-hood to notable women after their death.
The Bhagavathi at present is not a single identity. Several forms of Shakti and numerous martyred women are being worshipped under the form of Bhagavathi in different parts of the south India. Some of the renowned Bhagavathis are Anka Kulangara Bhagavathi, Kodangallur Bhagavathi, Pullurali Bhagavathi, Agrasahala Bhagavathi, Karingali Bhagavathi, Ambala Kadavil Bhagavathi, Cheerumba Bhagavathi, Dayaramangala Bhagavathi, Kaapad Bhagavathi, Ponnakal Bhagavathi, Kannamangala Bhagavathi, Kalarathri Bhagavathi, Mucchalotu Bhagavathi, etc.
Forms of Shakti/Durga
Similarly there are numerous Bhagavathis inspired from or bearing relation to the Shakti or Durga cult like Agni Chamundi Bhagavathi, Rakta Chamundi Bhagavathi, Rudra Chamundi Bhagavathi, Veera Kaali Bhagavathi etc. Godesses like Chamundi, Kaali etc have been considered to be various form of the Godess Durga or the Shakti.
Convergence of Spirit & Deity worships
The Spirit worship in Karavali-Malabar region was introduced about 800-600 BC. Subsequently, during the reign of major Kings like Kadamba, Chalukya and other Kings the institutionalized (well-organized Temples) worship of several forms of Deities (Shiva-Ganesha-Vishnu-Durga) was introduced with effect from 4th century AD. Since then Deity and Spirit worships continued to survive at different social levels among the folks of West Coast.
Bhagavathi cult bridged the narrow gap between the two parallel schools of worship during post 10 century period, leading to distinct convergence of Deity and Spirit worships.
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